The first thing you see on Herbie Hancock’s website is a message from the 73-year-old jazz icon, asking his fans to donate toward the making of a documentary on his lifelong friend and former Miles Davis bandmate Wayne Shorter. It’s a warm gesture of support from one legend to another—and it naturally brings up something Shorter told the Straight during a 2012 interview, when asked how he managed to endure the death, in a jetliner crash, of his wife and their niece.
“I kept hearing a voice in my head—and I was probably saying it to myself—going, ‘Do the work. Do the work,’ ” the saxophonist said. “And you find out what work really means, too.”
Hancock sounds genuinely touched by that story. “Oh, that’s great,” he says, his affection for Shorter obvious. And although the veteran pianist has been spared the kind of personal heartbreak that his colleague has had to contend with, he, too, is set on doing the work.
But that work isn’t necessarily what you might think it is.
“My main work is to grow and expand, and to investigate what else I’m made of besides being a musician,” Hancock explains, reached at home in Los Angeles.
“I mean, we all manifest ourselves in a lot of different ways,” he continues. “But most of us define ourselves by that one single thing that we’re probably best known for. And my belief is that we shortchange ourselves in that way, whereas if we define ourselves as a human being first, it includes that and every other aspect of what we are. So when you talk about the idea of ‘doing the work’, that’s the work I’m interested in. What can I contribute as a human being? And part of that has to be due to my own growth, because if I don’t grow, I’m not able to contribute.”
Like Shorter, Hancock continues to expand his musical and personal horizons, thanks to his deep curiosity about life and his empathetic interest in others. But he’s more outgoing than his often enigmatic fellow traveller, and so he’s taken on an increasingly public role as a spokesperson for peace, music, and international cooperation. In addition to outreach work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and the International Committee of Artists for Peace, in 2011 he was named a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO.
As for musical ventures, Hancock’s beliefs were made concrete on the 2010 release The Imagine Project, in which an enormous cast of international stars—including Pink, Seal, Jeff Beck, the Chieftains, Tinariwen, K’naan, Dave Matthews, Anoushka Shankar, and, yes, Wayne Shorter—joined forces to perform songs by Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, Peter Gabriel, and John Lennon.
“It’s the 21st century, and already it’s quite clear that we’re at the beginning of a more global connectivity on the planet,” he says of The Imagine Project, which involved sessions on four continents. “That carries with it its own challenges. We can see that it’s a really difficult world that we live in, and the idea of global collaboration is something that I think needs to be promoted over and over again. In other words, if we’re active participants in creating the kind of globalized world that we want to live in and that we want our children to live in, then there’s much more of a chance for us to be happy about the future than if we sit on our hands and wait for somebody else to create the globalized future of the planet.”
Rather surprisingly, Hancock does not trace his inclusive world-view to his experience of the civil-rights movement during the 1960s.
“I wasn’t thinking that way at the time,” he says. “I was thinking about tunes, and not about purpose—although I did have great musical mentors, like Miles Davis, who demonstrated the importance of having conviction about what you think is right and what you think is important. Miles demonstrated, with his own playing and with his bands, that he respected musicians who were constantly trying to create something that they hadn’t created before. You know, something new and something fresh.”
That’s an ethos Hancock carries over into his own touring ensemble, an international and multigenerational quartet that includes Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke, bassist James Genus, and Monk Institute student Jonathan Pinson on drums. When assembling the group, he went looking for musicians who could surprise him—and in concert he’s careful to allow them enough room that they can also surprise themselves.
“All of this is really due to my practice of Buddhism,” he says. “I’ve been practising Buddhism for 40 years, and that’s what has led me to this path of discovering my own humanity, and recognizing the humanity that’s in others. The interesting thing is that jazz itself is a wonderful model of that kind of thinking, because it’s a music that’s in the moment. It’s also collaborative, so it’s unselfish in that way. And it certainly is creative!”
Spoken like a true musician—and a very wise man.